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A Doctor among the Oglala Sioux Tribe

The Letters of Robert H. Ruby, 1953-1954

Robert H. Ruby, Edited and with an introduction by Cary C. Collins and Charles V. Mutschler

Publication Year: 2010

In 1953 young surgeon Robert H. Ruby began work as the chief medical officer at the hospital on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He began writing almost daily to his sister, describing the Oglala Lakota people he served, his Bureau of Indian Affairs colleagues, and day-to-day life on the reservation. Ruby and his wife were active in the social life of the non-white community, which allowed Ruby, also a self-trained ethnographer, to write in detail about the Oglala Lakota people and their culture, covering topics such as religion, art, traditions, and values. His frank and personal depiction of conditions he encountered on the reservation examines poverty, alcoholism, the educational system, and employment conditions and opportunities. Ruby also wrote critically of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, describing the bureaucracy that made it difficult for him to do his job and kept his hospital permanently understaffed and undersupplied. These engaging letters provide a compelling memoir of life at Pine Ridge in the mid-1950s.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v


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pp. vi


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pp. vii


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pp. viii

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pp. ix-x

First and foremost, thank you to Dr. Robert H. Ruby for his willingness to allow us to publish his letters, which had been stored away for decades in the bottom of a cabinet in his home in Moses Lake, Washington. For several years we had been working with Dr. Ruby on historical projects related to his life, his writing career with his long-time...

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Introduction: The Deadliest War

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pp. xi-lxiii

They drove throughout the day and into the evening, their unlikely destination Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It could be said “unlikely” because they had been married for only a couple weeks and to this point in their relatively young lives could claim absolutely no affiliation with either the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation or the members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who lived there. It was August 1953, and Robert Ruby was...

Timeline of Selected Events in the Life of Robert H. Ruby, md

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pp. lxv-lxvii

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Editors’ Comment on Editorial Methodology [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. lxix-lxx

The original material consisted of a series of letters from Dr. Robert H. Ruby to his sister, Marion Johnson, using a typewriter and keeping carbon copies for himself, which he preserved. As he began transferring many of his papers to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Cultures in Spokane, Washington, Ruby retained the rights to this correspondence...

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One. August 1953

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pp. 1-21

I received my commission in May as a senior assistant surgeon in the United States Public Health Service. As soon as I received the papers, it was only a few days later that a letter arrived from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the glad tidings that a “mansion” was being reserved for me. Pine Ridge was to be my station, since I had been allocated to the Department of the Interior....

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Two. September 1953

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pp. 22-34

Up north on the Pine Ridge reservation and just above the reservation are three large plateaus of land. One is Red Shirt Table, where many of the Indians live, Cooley Table, where some live, and Blindman Table, where only one family lives. These areas surround the very rugged Badlands. A patient in the hospital now with tuberculosis of the peritoneum...

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Three. October 1953

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pp. 35-48

My secretary, an Indian, refused to take a history on a patient, a white man. That is her job. But the man is head of Forestry and doles out the money to the Indians. He has a tough job, and his work is not appreciated. So they, the Indians, do not like him. Her personal feelings went above her work, whereas she should have been very impersonal...

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Four. November 1953

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pp. 49-66

We started out early yesterday morning, Jeanne, Lyman Carr, and I, with Jake Herman, one of the five members of the tribal council. We headed north from Pine Ridge, past where the hospital is located, and where the Indians shot at the Agency Office in 1890. The Indians had the belief that wearing a certain jacket of buckskin would protect them from...

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Five. December 1953

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pp. 67-77

I went up to Wanblee, approximately a hundred miles from Pine Ridge, for a community services lecture. Mrs. Forshey, the social worker who gives the Welfare presentation, took me up. We stopped in Martin and picked up Mr. Lautzenheiser, the child welfare worker. Right now he has the assignment of establishing which children are enrolled in the...

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Six. January 1954

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pp. 78-99

Today Mrs. Forshey, the social worker, asked me if I’d heard when I was going to be fired. I didn’t know what she was referring to. And she said, “Haven’t you heard?”...

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Seven. February 1954 [Contains Color Plates]

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pp. 100-131

There was a staff meeting of all department heads this morning on the Bimson Report. I had told Mr. Reifel I wanted to leave at 8:30 to do some surgery. So he excused me just before that time. I left the meeting and thought I’d better let him know what time I’d pick him up this evening. So I penned a message that I’d get him and Mrs. Reifel at 6:30...

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Eight. March 1954

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pp. 132-155

Jeanne and I were just like the Indians last night in that we had to go see the movie The Great Sioux Uprising at the ochs auditorium. The film was about Red Cloud and his band, the Oglala Sioux. The movie had more to do with horse thieving than the Sioux. One night a week, usually...

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Nine. April 1954

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pp. 156-173

Harley Quint said that people all over have been asking him about Mr. Reifel. He had just returned from two days at Mission on the Rosebud reservation. He was refracting eyes over there. People asked him if it was true that some had gotten petitions out against Mr. Reifel. Eddie...

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Ten. May 1954

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pp. 174-203

Yesterday, the last Friday of the month, a community services meeting was held with Mr. Reifel. He is conducting the meetings now with each department head taking a session and presenting what he thinks a reservation program ought to consist of. Mr. Pyles, head of Education, presented what he thought a reservation program ought to be. He...

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Eleven. June 1954

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pp. 204-219

Today I got a letter from Mrs. Forshey marked “personal and confidential.” It was about someone I know well. Some weeks ago, Dr. Gassman had said that this man was okay to work and would not permit him to get Aid to Dependent Children any longer. The reservation...

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Twelve. July 1954

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pp. 220-242

Joe Red Bear of Oglala is giving a Sun Dance as a vow he made to the Great Spirit if his wife could again see. She had an operation for cataracts and can now see. So today was to be the beginning. John Means of Wounded Knee got a half a buffalo from the state park for the deal....

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Thirteen. August 1954

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pp. 243-273

The Sun Dance festivities are over, but I noticed this morning at about 4:00 when I had to go to the hospital to take care of the big wheel for part of the celebration that most of the tents are still there. They will most likely be pulled out today. Jake Herman drank two beers and two cocktails last night, he said. He was horribly tired and wanted to stay...

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Fourteen. September 1954

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pp. 274-299

School started Monday. Kind of nice to see school kids around town again. Poor Mr. Mickelson is run ragged. I went over to see him and his wife Monday night. He didn’t get home until 10:30 p.m. The rest of us were eating. So last night I started studying for my surgery boards, and they came over, ate, and left at 11 p.m.1 But he floored me. He said...

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Fifteen. October 1954

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pp. 300-312

Already we are beginning to think about our trek back home. The movers were here to move Dr. Gassman and gave us an estimate on poundage. But darn it, we have jars, including pints and quarts, of fruits and vegetables and their trucks are not heated. Besides, our stuff will have to be in storage for a short while so it could all freeze and burst....

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Sixteen. November 1954

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pp. 313-319

I leave tomorrow evening or Wednesday morning for Aberdeen for the Area Medical-Dental conference. When I get back, I have three days, and then I will be off again for Atlantic City for the American College of Surgeons convention....

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Seventeen. December 1954

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pp. 320-323

Government service is sure the nuttiest business. In the first place politics plays a crazy role. Nobody, but nobody, will say anything about anybody else, even if it is on the direst of terms. I should say they do not make statements or put things in writing. Yet when all is said and done, plenty of talking is done by those who take sides. I’m thinking...

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Editors’ Postscript

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pp. 324-325

As is usual for a memoir, this is a report of observations more than a critical analysis. Memoirs are written from the perspective of an interested party, leaving the analysis for others. Dr. Robert Ruby’s memoir contains a wealth of information for use by scholars. As a participant in the operation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Ruby observed the...


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pp. 327


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pp. 329-343


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pp. 345-349


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pp. 351-366

E-ISBN-13: 9780803230064
E-ISBN-10: 0803230060
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803226258
Print-ISBN-10: 080322625X

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 13 b&w photos, 5 maps, 4 figures, appendix
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota -- History -- 20th century.
  • Oglala Indians -- South Dakota -- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • Community life -- South Dakota -- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -- History -- 20th century.
  • Oglala Indians -- Medical care -- South Dakota -- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -- History -- 20th century.
  • Ruby, Robert H. -- Correspondence.
  • Physicians -- Nebraska -- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -- Correspondence.
  • Whites -- Nebraska -- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation -- Correspondence.
  • Pine Ridge Indian Hospital (S.D.) -- History -- 20th century.
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